World War I was the war of many names; some of which were the Great War, the First World War, WWI, and the War to End All Wars. In America it was the European War. Its main cause was militarism and nationalism. However, it was precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the main idea of national security in Europe was to have a larger army than other countries. With a larger army there would be less chance another nation would attack you. While this concept may be true to some extent, other nations, both smaller and larger, would become fearful of aggression and would increase their armies and armament. Thus we have the classic arms race:this one involving many nations.
Advanced war planning was common in the late eighteenth century. Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff, developed a plan of attack against France. This plan included contingencies to cover the mutual aid treaty between France and Russia. Schlieffen proposed an attack by Austria into the Russian-held portion of Poland, thereby reducing the threat of Russia interfering with the German advance against France, but Germany wasn't the only nation to have contingency plans in the event of war. This type of pre-war planning was common in almost all nations in the world.
Realizing that such militaristic attitudes existed and would prevail, the Tsar of Russia was fearful of a multi-national war. While speaking at the Hague in 1899, he proposed a solution: establish an international review committee to arbitrate potential conflicts to arrive at a peaceful solution. This proposal was accepted. Unfortunately, it spoke only of arbitration. It did not, however, place any limitations that would prevent the nations from increasing military build-up. Still, the method and possibility for arbitration was available if and when it was needed.
Feelings of imperialism in Austria-Hungary and nationalism in Romania and Serbia generated contentious feelings between the nations. These feelings were an instrumental cause of the war. The militaristic attitudes of most European nations at that time were â€śif my army is bigger than my neighborâ€™s army, they will not attack me"; basically, the classic arms race. With all the nations having the same attitude the stage was set for trouble.
The Hapsburg family ruled the Austrian/Hungarian Empire. Though they ruled in Austria and Hungary, they owned extensive properties in Romania and Serbia and wanted to have full control of the two nations. With surging nationalism rampant in both countries, their governments wanted to annex the Hapsburg properties and return them to local ownership. While both countries were thorns in the side of the Empire, Serbia was perhaps the more contentious. To say that feelings between the Empire and Serbia were strained would be an understatement. These feelings contributed to the singular event that precipitated World War I.
When the arbitration method was needed in 1914, it was not used. Instead several nations chose war. While militaristic attitudes did not help, the war was precipitated by one major incident. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Sophie, were on a state visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina when they were assassinated on 28 June 1914 by a Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip. For a long time the Empire had wanted to take full control of Serbia. This assassination gave them a reason.
Granted, the assassination required a response, But was military hostilities the proper response? As John Keenan stated in his book The First World War, â€śprudence and common senseâ€ť could have prevented the entire conflict. Had the situation been presented at the Hague, a peaceful solution might have been found. Unfortunately for Europe and much of the rest of the world, the Empire chose war, instead of arbitration, resulting in huge numbers of dead and wounded and the destruction of thousands of square miles of peaceful farmland and many villages. Events happened so quickly that the diplomats and statesmen had no chance to present the situation to arbitration, or to even contact their counterparts in other countries.
The Conflict Expands
If this was a conflict between the Austro/Hungarian Empire and Serbia, how did the rest of Europe get involved? A vast network of treaties existed between most of the European nations and some of the eastern Mediterranean nations.
The Franco-Russian Alliance was first agreed upon in 1891, but later in 1894 became a secret agreement. When Russia entered a war with Germany, France would join with Russia.
There was an agreement between Russia and Serbia that was made in 1903. Serbia was to annex Bosnia to the Russians. In return Russia would come to Serbiaâ€™s aide if they were attacked. Evidenced by the annexation of Bosnia, Russia had and expansionist policy in south-east Europe. Austria-Hungary also sought to expand their empire. Obviously, these policies conflicted and cause tensions between the two nations. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia was drawn into the fray.
When Russia became involved, it invoked the 1879 treaty between Germany and Austria-Hungary. This treaty stated that both nations agreed to mutual support if either were to enter hostilities with any other power. If Russia entered hostilities against Austria-Hungary, Germany would support Austria-Hungary. Had the situation been different, had Russia attacked Germany, Austria-Hungary would then support Germany. Germanyâ€™s involvement invoked the Dual Alliance of 1894 drawing France into the conflict.
Franceâ€™s entry invoked the 1904 Entente Cordial between England and France. Not originally concerning war, it ultimately ensured England would support France in hostilities against Germany.
In 1882 the Triple Alliance was signed between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Basically, Italy would remain neutral unless Germany and Russia were involved. Since Russia was involved, Italy was drawn in.
Germany initially requested free transport through Belgium in order to attack France. When the request was denied, Germany invaded Belgium and continued through Luxembourg. These invasions invoked treaties between England and Belgium, signed in 1839, and England and Luxembourg, signed in 1867. Both treaties guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg in any and all European conflicts.
In 1901 the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was the first alliance between a European nation and a western Pacific nation. It guaranteed mutual assistance if either nation entered a war with two other nations. England was now at war with both Germany and Austria-Hungary drawing Japan into the war
On Sunday, 2 August 1914 Germany entered a secret agreement with the Ottoman Empire in Asia Minor. The Empire was to join Germany and Austria-Hungary right after Germany declared war with Russia. This created an additional front in the Balkans and North Africa. The Turkish armyâ€™s offensives in North Africa, particularly the in Saini Desert, were largely unsuccessful. Even so, they were supportive of the Germans because they held British and Russian troops in that area rather than being freed to transfer to the combat zones of the Western Front in Europe.
The War Becomes Global
The Japanese were drawn in because of their treaty with England. Germany had a small naval base on the China coast at Jiaozhou Bay In the port of Qingdao. In September 1914, the Japanese attacked the base and forced the German fleet to leave the area.
The Japanese did not stop at Qingdao, but continued to attack other German colonies in the North Pacific, specifically the Marianas, Caroline Islands and Marshal Islands. These colonies were left defenseless when the German fleet left.
Even South America got involved, though not directly. Having been forced out of their base in China by the Japanese, the German fleet headed south-east. A message giving the location of the German fleet was intercepted by the British and several British ships were sent to cut off the German fleet. Contact was made between the two forces of the coast of Chile, where the German fleet soundly destroyed the British forces. The Battle of Coronel was one of the first naval battles of the war and occurred off the coast of Chile, South America. The British Admiralty had planned to reinforce the fleet with the new armored cruiser HMS Defence, but instead diverted the ship to patrol the western Atlantic. A serious mistake on their part.
In all, thirteen nations were initially involved: Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Serbia and the United Kingdom (England), Australia and New Zealand. The United States entered the war later than the others, bringing the total to fourteen.
Colonization by nations on both sides of the conflict brought the number of nations involved to one hundred, making this truly a global war.
Top of Page | Pre-War Treaties